‘Magic of Foreignness’
The art world just went into a tizzy the other day when French artist Paul Gauguin’s painting was sold for nearly $300 million — apparently the largest sum ever paid for a work of art, and proof that a new category of a ‘super trophy’ is now emerging — as an art dealer recently put it. The buzz amongst insiders of the art world is that When Will You Marry (Nafea Faa Ipoipo), the canvas Gauguin painted in Tahiti in 1892, was bought by a Qatari collector from a private Swiss collector. This painting with two sultry Tahitian women in an idyllic, Polynesian landscape (a paradise not yet lost) will probably find a new home in the Qatar Museums in Doha.
Perhaps, I have misled you so far. This column is not about the art market, or even art. The news item about the sale of this work and the ripples of disbelief in the art world made me think about the painter and why he went to Tahiti in the first place. Actually, why do artists and writers go elsewhere, often to other ends of the world? Do you have to travel so that your imagination can also do so? Is it seeking something? Or is it escaping something? The quest for fading or elusive inspiration may be the obvious answer.
The answer may, however, not be that simple, or singular. The French painter was a fairly successful stockbroker, with a Danish wife and five children. Financial difficulties and problems in his marriage may have been the trigger for his moving to the South Pacific and opting for self-exile. It could also have been the fact that his work was not selling (or being even appreciated at the time in France) that led him to leave Europe. Or, perhaps he was just bored. The post-Impressionist 19th century artist certainly had more than a fair share of wanderlust: Gauguin joined the merchant marines and is said to have visited India as well. Some analysts have even described Gauguin’s flight to the South Pacific islands as an early example of a midlife crisis.
Interestingly, a few of the French Tahiti paintings have been used as covers of different editions of The Moon and Sixpence, arguably British writer W Somerset Maugham’s best known novel which is loosely based on Gauguin’s life in self-exile. However, Maugham made his protagonist, Charles Strickland, British. Strickland is middle-aged, married and a stockbroker, like Gauguin. And his life closely parallels the French painter’s: disillusionment with western civilisation, pursuit of art and beauty, move to Tahiti, years painting Polynesian women — and even living with them and fathering their children.
Maugham’s fascination with Gauguin’s Tahiti years may not have been accidental. The writer, too, was in some sort of self-exile for many years in the Far East and South Seas — and not just for inspiration. The writer — married but also gay — lived in the East, a world away from home, during a time when homosexuality was not acceptable. It may well have been a major motivation for his choosing to spend many years of his life in this region.
Many artists and writers moved to distant corners of the globe and opted for the life of an expatriate in faraway lands for personal and, often, secret reasons. Certainly, writers like William Burroughs, the American writer known for his iconic novel The Naked Lunch set in Tangiers, found life as a gay man easier in Morocco. Similarly, the British novelist Christopher Isherwood followed his poet-friend WH Auden to the more open and accepting Berlin of the late 1920s. Isherwood later moved to California, and lived a fairly open life. James Baldwin, black and gay, also found a more receptive terrain in Paris.
For the creative, or wannabe creative, travel becomes essential. Moreover, life is elsewhere for a variety of reasons: offloading boredom in their homelands, seeking inspiration and embracing the exotic. And, as Isherwood so tellingly put it, in pursuit of the ‘mystery magic of foreignness’. There were more mundane reasons for leaving for other lands. Until not too long ago, before auctions propelled the prices of artworks into the stratosphere, artists hardly earned any money, often dying in penury. Writers, too, for that matter needed an inheritance or a rich wife or a day job to survive. Living in less developed lands certainly did away with societal expectations and extended the horizons. But perhaps even more to the point: life was much cheaper. They could even afford domestic servants for much of the last century.
Arguably, the most celebrated and well-known expat American writers and artists flocked to Paris, many of them to Gertrude Stein’s salon: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane and many others. Many of them came of age during World War 1. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway: “You are the ‘Lost Generation’.” I suppose the witty grande dame could have added: lost in the US and found in Paris.
Artists and writers needn’t actually displace themselves in search of inspiration or a new way of looking at things. They could, as Pablo Picasso did, through objects and artefacts. He first saw African masks at the Musée d’ Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in 1907 (no longer there), and collected African tribal art after: it was to significantly influence his art for a few years. His breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, begun the same year, was influenced by tribal African sculpture. Interestingly, Henri Matisse had shown him an African mask earlier.
Like Paul Gauguin, Constant Georges Gaste, another French painter from about the same time, also sought inspiration and a life away from France. The nomadic Gaste, who was also a photographer — far ahead of his time with his realistic depictions of ordinary people — initially went to Algeria, Morocco and Egypt before coming to India. A troubled and solitary soul, this amazing painter may have found what he was looking for in India. He spent a little over five years in India, where he died — in Madurai in 1910 at the age of 41 — alone and surrounded by unfinished canvases. His photographs have just been exhibited in 10 cities in India — these and his paintings are a testimony to the wandering artist, forever in search of inspiration, and the sun.
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